Watching Ashley McBryde stand and deliver her against-all-odds survivor’s anthem to arenas full of cheering fans, it’s hard to imagine her as being painfully shy.
But the Mammoth Spring, Ark., girl, raised on a cattle farm in the Ozarks whose major label debut “Girl Going Nowhere” earned her a 2018 Grammy nomination, said her shyness nearly crippled her in her formative years.
“I’m still pretty shy,” the country singer-songwriter said last week during one of the stops on Miranda Lambert’s Roadside Bars & Pink Guitars Tour. “In fact, I get pretty severe anxiety before meet-and-greets. Getting over it, I just had to pretend, had to fake it till I made it.”
McBryde’s strategy was to elongate her frame by willpower and overcome her shyness by projecting confidence.
“I’m only 5’ 3”, but I try to be the tallest person in the room. As soon as I walk in, I like to stick my hand out, shake your hand and say, ‘Hey, ‘I’m Ashley,’ because that sets everybody at ease, and it also distracts from how shy I am. I’m setting them back on their heels, and I don’t have to be on my toes.”
McBryde’s heel-setting has expanded her profile this year by being awarded CMT’s Breakout Artist of the Year on Oct. 16, adding to her shelf of awards, including the Academy of Country Music’s New Female Artist of the Year award as well as CMT’s Breakthrough Video of the Year award, along with an Emmy nomination for her performance on “CBS This Morning Saturday.” She did a weeklong residency in Las Vegas with George Strait, toured with Little Big Town, and had Garth Brooks cover her breakout single for his upcoming live album.
And even though she didn’t win a Grammy for best country album this time around, just being considered for the award in a category featuring Kelsea Ballerini, Brothers Osborne, winner Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton was a life-changing experience, McBryde said.
“That’s the most important nomination I could ever hope for,” she said. “Whether that changes how much money goes in my pocket, I don’t care. But I sat behind Quincy Jones. I sat there at the Grammys, and the fella in front of me turns around, and shook my hand and said, ‘Hello, I’m Quincy Jones.’ And I thought, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a loss in cabin pressure.’ ”
But McBryde is no stranger to pressure, building a career inspired by a former teacher’s rejection of her dream to be a singer-songwriter, telling her in front of the other children that her dream of moving to Nashville, Tenn., and writing songs wasn’t going to happen and that she better have a backup plan.
But McBryde persevered, moving to Nashville in 2007 and honing her performance skills in dive bars for nearly 10 years before releasing her first EP, 2016’s “Jalopies and Expensive Guitars.”
But it was her album “Girl Going Nowhere” that got her spotlight lit, with the spit-in-your-eye lyrics of a survivor. “Don’t waste your life behind that guitar / You may get gone, but you won’t get far / You’re not the first, you won’t be the last / And you can tell us all about it when you come crawling back,” she sings in the opening verse, citing her former teacher’s disparaging remarks. But McBryde comes roaring back on the chorus, with a shut-up-and-look-at-me-now retort to all the naysayers:
“But when the lights come up / And I hear the band / And where they said I’d never be is exactly where I am / I hear the crowd, I look around / And I can’t find an empty chair / Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere.”
McBryde vowed to send an unsigned copy of the record to the teacher but hasn’t been able to yet, despite trying.
“I tried to get her address, and I was unable to, and I tried to ‘friend’ her three different times on Facebook and kept getting declined. So, I’m assuming she didn’t want to hear the record. I would still love to send her a copy of the record and thank her for being my very first hard ‘NO!’ And that set me up to be able to accept those no’s through the next decade until they turned into yeses.”
Even with her success as a singer, McBryde said she still thinks of herself as a songwriter who sings, confiding that the only reason she moved to Nashville was to make up songs and get somebody to pay her for it.
“You’re going to take this room full of silence and all these creative minds and you’re going to bend these phrases to your will,” she said. “Songwriting is a really strange animal, and I’m so grateful that it chose me to let me do this for a living.”
On “The Jacket,” McBryde shows off her skills, creating a musical novel in a few sentences. The story is autobiographical, a tale of a weathered but treasured hand-me-down lost to thievery. McBryde brought the actual jacket to the songwriting session, showing the tattered garment to her co-writers.
“It’s got a hole in the elbow, and it’s patched up with a piece of deer hide, and on the left pocket that flap that buttons over the top had been ripped off and it was replaced with a piece of bandanna. I said, ‘Look, it’s got a hole in the elbow; it’s got the bandanna pocket; now all we’ve got to do is make it rhyme.’”
An uncle handed her the jacket when she was 14.
“It was actually our family history — scrapbook be damned,” she said. “Our family history was on this nicotine-yellow, almost dingy, I mean that dingy-colored denim. It wasn’t even blue anymore. It was such a cool jacket.”
Although it was a valued heirloom, McBryde still wore it.
“I had it in the back seat of my truck and somebody busted the windows out and took my jacket,” she said, choking up. “That’s the worst material loss I’ve ever suffered. And I still look for it. I still look in every town and hope to see that thing. And if I ever get it back, it’ll have your blood on the collar because I will absolutely knock your teeth out if I see you wearing it.”
That kind of intensity, portrayed in her lyrics and her delivery, makes her standout in a field of all-hat-and no-cattle country star wannabees.
“Loving every second of what happens is the way I’d like to be remembered,” she said. “On stage you can see joy across the entire stage. I’m a huge fan of everybody in my band, and I think it’s visible and tangible. And that would be my legacy.”